Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)


Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).


Science Book Challenge Review: Dance for Two (Lightman)

When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.

Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:

“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”

The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.

Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.

There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”

In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.


  • Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
  • Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
  • Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
  • Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
  • Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.

Is originality merely the rehashing of old ideas?

This is my second practice attempt at the Analytical Writing Issue task. I finished this one in 45 minutes even (or is that “odd”? 😉 ), but I had to stop halfway through proofreading. Hope all my subjects agree with their verbs, and everything. The first two topics were ones I had decent examples for off the top of my head; I worry I won’t be so lucky on the real thing.

Originality does not mean thinking something that was never thought before; it means putting old ideas together in new ways.

An old dictum states that everything a person thinks has been thought before, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” And in many cases, this is true.

Witness the countless love poems that have been written: we express the same concept with myriad images and metaphors, always seeking new ways to depict a feeling that is common to all people in all times. Surely, in the context of love poems, originality must mean putting an old idea in a new light.

Even the modern personal computer was not a new idea when it was developed as a practical product; the idea of a programmable computing machine goes back at least to Charles Babbage in the nineteenth century. And his idea was arguably a ‘mere’ modification of adding machines that have been used for thousands of years. A long history of computing machines has led up to our current Macbook Pros, iPods, and touchscreen tablet PCs; the originality and innovation in the computer industry involves a great deal of modification to existing technology. We create new technologies by borrowing and improving upon existing ones.

But is all originality merely modification or recombination?

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. And he was a fit judge: a genius physicist, his Theory of Relativity caused a paradigm shift in the physical sciences, rewriting our model of the universe. He showed that Newtonian physics was deeply flawed (albeit useful on the scale of the everyday world), a feat that required no small amount of knowledge. But it required no less of him in originality: at the heart of Einstein’s theory is a redefinition of time itself. No one before him had imagined that time and space might be related, that they might be anything but constant.

It requires originality to express old ideas in novel ways, or to transform the idea of an adding machine into that of a Macbook Pro. But sometimes, someone does think a new thought; that kind of originality can change our world radically, well deserving the name we give it: “genius.”

Do important truths begin as heresy?

So far, I haven’t practiced for the writing portion of the GRE at all, even though I have the bank of topics from ETS printed off and right beside my desk. I think it’s time I start to work on that, so I’m going to try picking topics from the list and writing blog posts about them, in the basic form of an essay exam response. I’m not allowing myself to do research while writing them (since, obviously, I won’t be able to do that during the GRE), so here’s hoping I’m not terribly ignorant or misinformed. 😉 Here’s the first one…I don’t much like it, but then I rarely do. I hate this kind of writing (I prefer to do about 10 hours of research to 1 hour of writing…to 4 hours of editing*), so don’t be too hard on me. 😛

* I totally made those numbers up, but they seem like reasonable guesses. Also, fyi, this took me about 20-30 minutes too long. I need to work on that.

Important truths begin as outrageous, or at least uncomfortable, attacks upon the accepted wisdom of the time.

For many centuries, the Ptolemaic model of the universe was the prevailing, accepted “truth.” While his model was complicated, Ptolemy had found a way to explain the observed motions of celestial objects that assured us humans that we were situated at the center of the universe, in a place of prime importance. His model sanctioned religious myths according to which the gods had created mankind in their own image, placing humans at the top of a hierarchy of beings and giving us the lead role in a great cosmic drama. We, they claimed, were more important than everything else in the universe except the gods themselves.

When Copernicus and others suggested that perhaps our world was not, in fact, at the center–that we orbited the Sun rather than the other way around–they were not greeted with enthusiasm. Heliocentrism was at first regarded at best as silly, at worst as dangerous heresy, worthy of harsh punishment. Galileo, when he made it known that his observations corroborated the heliocentric hypothesis, was forced by religious authorities to recant. But the truth that Earth orbits the Sun was a significant step along the way to our current understanding of the universe.

And more than two centuries after Darwin published his Origin of Species, people spurred by discomfort with the implications of biological evolution are still fighting its presence or prominence in science classrooms. Evolutionary theory, which is by now quite well-established, has led to breakthroughs in agriculture, medicine, and our understanding of the origin of many diseases.

Clearly, some important truths at first cause great discomfort.

It would not be fair, however, to claim that all important truths do so. It is a truth that most human parents love their children, and I suspect that very few would regard this fact as unimportant. Familial love motivates parents to take the best possible care of their children and is a defining feature of the human experience for children and parents both. Further, that parents tend to love their children is a truth so natural to us that we may not even notice it unless we find an exception, and it is the exceptions that we deem outrageous. Further, we would be hard pressed to identify its origin; it is a condition that evolved along with our species.

Unlike the examples from Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, which challenged our understanding of the world, parental love is a crucial part of that understanding. So perhaps it is those views that force us to broaden or radically change our understanding of the world around us that seem at first implausible or discomfiting. And perhaps the fact that they seem so implausible, that they do so greatly change our paradigm, is what makes these truths important.